to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.”
- Kobayashi Issa
During my recent visit to Edmonton I gave a talk at the Edmonton Interfaith Centre about Shelley and my experiences during our first year in Japan. At first I chose a fairly boring title, “Nihon no Matsuri: The Festivals of Japan.” While this title encapsulated my topic, it didn't seem to have much pizazz. So, while we traveled to the American Southwest I spent the long driving hours racking my brain for something better. As I considered my chosen topic, and recalled all the festivals that we attended (or in some cases that we only have heard about) I realized that the Japanese celebrate just about everything. While some festivals may be Buddhist and others Shinto, people here don't seem to miss a beat; everything no matter how mundane can be a source of celebration. There then was my title: “Nihon no Matsuri: Celebrating Just About Everything, Experiencing the Festivals of Japan.”
Japan, in my experience, has more festivals than almost anywhere. Every month The Japan Times posts a webpage* – far from comprehensive I am told – including a multitude of festivals to be held all over the country. I am sometimes surprised that anyone has time to work! Some times, as on New Years, the festivals are fairly uniform wherever they are held, but very often the festivals are much more local and unique, celebrating everything from flowers and vegetables to wind chimes and even calligraphy pens. Even those, which celebrate more universal themes, such as fertility, prosperity or the harvest, may often have local idiosyncratic elements. The Hadaka Matsuri (near naked festival, described in an earlier blog) is one really good example. This festival, which celebrates fertility – both for humanity and the rice harvest – brings together young men who symbolically plant rice, anoint their newly born children, and wrestle in the mud.
During almost any given week it seems that there is a festival celebrated somewhere near Tokyo. Often there may even be more than one. One week in early July Shelley and I attended no less than three different festivals, two no more than a few blocks apart (there were also several during the same period that we were not able to fit in).
Flowers form one of the constant themes for Japanese festivals throughout the year. Some, as with the famous Cherry Blossom Festival, focus primarily on appreciation, while others, such as the Morning Glory Festival, also take on the appearance of giant flower shows and sales.
These great flower fairs/festivals were quite striking for me. In the west we are used to a seemingly “morally” driven separation between religion and commerce. This great divide is no doubt strengthened by the image found in Christian scriptures of Jesus driving out the so-called moneylenders from the Temple. Yet, here in Japan nearly every festival has been an implicit reminder that such a bifurcation is not universal. Indeed the multiplicity of festivals, which celebrate the low (the daikon for example) as well as the high, is a reminder that everything has at least the potential to be sacred.
This same truth is, for me, an essence of the Jewish tradition. The sacred is everywhere if we but open our eyes. A reminder of this is found especially within mitzvot that deal with the minutiae of life. It is, for example, a mitzvah to put on ones right shoe first (before the left) upon getting up in the morning. Many have suggested that this is a demonstration of the absurdity of the halakha. Yet for me the rabbis are teaching a very subtle message. They are telling us that even putting on shoes, the most seemingly mundane of actions, is or at least has the potential to be an expression of holiness.
Rabbi Nachman also reminds us that the mystical presence of God is found in the beauty and wonder of nature. He suggested that an object such as a flower is ideal as a focus of meditation, allowing us to see the divine essence that underlies all creation. Through our mindful mediation we move from the diverse beauty of the flower, to the essential unity of all that exists.
The diversity of Japanese festivals are also a reminder that such opportunities exist where ever we look. These festivals provide an opportunity for us to realize that we are surrounded by holiness. A spark of the divine is found in the flowers as we contemplate and appreciate them. It is also found in the rice paddy and the child anointed with mud by his proud father. Even the daikon and calligraphy pen are infused with the divine presence. Yet, we go through the world with all our focus on the almighty dollar.
In our Jewish calendar we celebrate Rosh Hashanah as a day marking the creation of the world. The month of Elul provides the space and time to prepare for this auspicious and holy time in our year. We can choose to rush through these days mindless of God’s creative power. Or, instead, each morning as we set forth with the blast (at least notionally) of the shofar in our ears we can stop and be mindful and appreciative of the wonder that surrounds us. It is only then that we can find the divine presence, found everywhere when we truly open our eyes.